In the fashion world, the conversation has been going in circles for months. "What happened to all the black models?" "Let's round them up in a special edition of Vogue." "Why are the runways so pale?" "Let's trot out Naomi at the February shows."
So when he wanted to weigh in, fashion photographer Nick Knight decided not to talk. Instead, he produced and posted a film on the website SHOWstudio.com as part of a group of films dealing with the subject of fashion and politics. His subject: "the outright taboo subject of racism in the fashion industry." His stars: Naomi Campbell, a tank, two loaded handguns and a few slates of text.
As Campbell points two handguns at the camera, Knight's words appear on screen: "I am virtually never allowed to photograph black models for the magazines, fashion houses, cosmetic brands, perfume companies and advertising clients I work for. Whenever I ask to use a black model I am given excuses such as, 'Black models are not aspirational in some markets' or 'they do not reflect the brands values,' normally, however, no reason is given."
Then comes the final slate of text: "If I judge by my own feelings, I can only guess the indignation, anger, rage and fury that black models must feel." Finally, Campbell pulls the triggers and lets loose a flurry of bullets.
With no sound at all, Knight's two-minute, 11-second video is arguably the loudest statement yet in the months-long debate about the diversity of models on the runway and in print. Neither Knight nor other insiders can quite comprehend why the industry as a whole hasn't snapped to its senses and made an effort to incorporate black models as more than tokens of color.
"If you look at the catwalks, the shows in London, Paris, Milan, it's the same. Right across the board, there's a total under-representation of black models in the fashion industry. It happens in editorial and on the runways," Knight said. "I don't think it comes from the photographers. I don't think it comes from the fashion editors. I don't like to parcel out blame, but you have to look at why business allows it. I guess these companies are being told what sells and what doesn't sell. And I think within those marketing strategies are assumed racisms."
"I've often heard, 'All Asians like this. All Asian people like the color pink. This will work in the Asian market,'" he added. "As if human beings actually act like that. People don't behave as Asians, they don't behave as Americans, they don't behave as black people, they don't behave as BMW drivers. They don't behave as any of the stereotypes we put across."
Knight, who is white, said he produced and posted the video because "I realized I was accepting racism and bigotry and I needed to make a statement." Putting guns in the hands of a model with a history of violent blow-ups -- Campbell was arrested in April after a spat with police at Heathrow Airport -- was a calculated move, one intended to "get people's attention."
Knight's not the only one trying to jolt the masses. Italian Vogue broke ground by featuring only black models in its July issue, which sold out at newsstands in record time. But it only takes a moment of page-flipping to realize that while black models rule the photo spreads, white faces dominate the advertisements. Clearly, there's still a fight to be fought.
Marvet Britto, brand strategist and founder of PR firm The Britto Agency, finds the whole situation ironic, considering how many fashion and lifestyle trends emerge from the black community.
"What these companies fail to realize is a) we spend billions over all sectors of industry and b) as a smaller segment, we still influence the masses," said Britto, who is black. "Most of the trends we see, it can all be traced to urban culture. It's simply been adopted and made palatable for mass consumption."
"Marc Jacobs wears his pants low. Black men started doing that in jail because they didn't have belts," she said. "Women spend money to get lip enhancements, butt implants, more tan skin. They're seeking to mimic people with ethnic features -- traits that are found in African-American women."
What's even more confusing about the white-washing of models is the fact that their presence was once strong and meaningful. What happened?
"I remember when black models were everywhere in the '70s," said Simon Doonan, creative director at Barney's and author of "Eccentric Glamour." "Issey Miyake, Yves Saint Laurent, they used so many black girls. We've gone from that to the situation now where there are these token attempts to integrate black women. It's distasteful to me. Fashion should be intriguing and alluring. What's alluring about a parade of white girls?"
It seems the heroin-chic aesthetic of the '90s stuck around long enough to meld with America's current obsession with the Barbie look. The resulting standard is bad all around.
"We're living in a very conformist time where the national ideal is a girl with blond hair, a fake tan, fake boobs and fake lips. It's a very plastic ideal that dominates our culture," Doonan said. "The hot bimbo archetype is what's screwing everything up for everybody, not just women of color."
The solution? More people like Knight biting the pale, bony hand of the fashion industry that feeds them.
"I don't think this is hard-core racism. I think it's more inertia and stupidity on the part of the fashion industry. It's lack of imagination," Doonan said. "There's a collective responsibility the fashion industry has to get their a-- into gear, come into the 21st century, open the windows and doors and see all the beautiful girls that are out there and not have preconceived ideas about it. This is reprehensible and it needs to change."